On Legos, gender, and an inept defense of “Lego Friends”

A few days ago I posted that I was going to make a Lenten discipline out of posting things to this blog. I made sure to give myself an exemption for traveling, though, and I just spent the last few days traveling, which is why I haven’t posted anything else since then. Now that I’m back, I can post about any number of things today, but my travels somehow managed to include a lot of Legos, so I’ll post about Legos.

This past Sunday the local paper included an LA Times op-ed piece by Charlotte Allen blasting the legion of folks who have taken to criticizing Lego for its new girl-targeted “Lego Friends” line. The pink and pastel color palette, the slender female figures, and the beauty-, domesticity-, and animal-oriented sets have drawn the ire of bloggers and others who think the Friends line takes gender-targeted marketing too far. Allen’s article includes a reference to this article and the recently-viral 1981 ad off which it spins–the ad around which much of the furor has crystallized.

Allen is right to point out a few things about the Friends line. Friends, she notes, was an attempt on Lego’s part to broaden the appeal of the brand after market research revealed that a staggering 90% of children playing with Legos were boys. This gender imbalance also extends to the toys themselves: the female figures included with the Friends sets bring some welcome balance to the overwhelmingly male population of minifigures that exist elsewhere in Lego’s product line. Finally, the strategy has been working: Friends has indeed dramatically increased the number of girls who play with Legos, and the line has been selling very well.

But Allen makes some big missteps in her article, too. One is her assumption that the sales figures for Lego Friends sets reflect the desires, tastes, and preferences of actual girl children, as opposed to those of adults who know girl children. Most children, in and of themselves, have pretty limited purchasing power, so it’s unlikely that girls are going out and buying these sets for themselves. No doubt some girls do want these sets and request them from the adults in their lives, but what of the adults who buy the sets for their nieces, granddaughters, and friends’ daughters as surprise gifts? Allen makes no allowance for the grownups; she assumes the sales figures are driven by the girls themselves.

Another misstep is her failure to notice that Lego Friends’ recent status as a lightning rod for criticism is due not only to the product line itself but also to its visibility among a host of toys marketed to girls in pretty much the same ways: by making the toys and their packaging bright pink and purple, by focusing on themes of nurturing and domesticity, and by emphasizing beauty and physical appearance. That is, the critics have seized on Lego Friends, but they’ve done so because it’s a symptom of a much larger problem, and they’re angry about the whole problem. (In this article, for example, Laura Cohen lists quite a few other symptoms, from toy store layouts to toy catalogs; she also mentions the 2012 flap over Hasbro’s venerable Easy-Bake Oven.) But you’d never guess from Allen’s column that anything other than Lego Friends was fueling the fire.

But Allen’s most massive misstep is her utter–and utterly baffling, especially for someone who “writes frequently about feminism”–failure to consider the effects of gender-related social conditioning on children’s preferences. “Maybe little girls actually like the colors pink and purple,” she writes, “and they actually like pretend-home decoration and pretend-mothering of baby animals.” Yes, maybe so. But do girls like these things because, left to their own devices, these are indeed the things they would like? Or do girls like these things because advertisers and television shows and stores’ toy aisles have succeeded in brainwashing girls (and the adults in their lives) into believing that, because they are girls, these are the kinds of things they should like?

Allen goes on to contrast boys’ preference for “vast mechanical and architectural projects”–a product of the “superior spatial skills” which “neuroscience has demonstrated” that their sex possesses–with girls’ tendency “to gravitate toward interpersonal connections and stories.” All right, maybe there’s something there as well. But do boys and girls gravitate toward such different things because of some difference in their wiring or because they are socialized to prefer different things? And even if there is some neuroscientific basis for those differences–a fact which Allen takes as read, but one of which I’m much less convinced–is that difference innate in the children from birth, or does it come about as young boys and girls receive different messages from the world around them and try to integrate those messages into a coherent picture of that world and their place in it, and that process shapes their neural pathways accordingly?

Now, I still love what Lego building sets, at their best, can be, although I’m no fan of quite a few trends I’ve seen in Lego kits over the last few decades, especially the trend of relying so heavily on specialized pieces that it becomes almost impossible to build anything but what’s on the front of the box. I’ll give Lego credit for doing something to break its de facto boys-only image, even if Lego Friends deserves every ounce of criticism it gets for the way it plays to the all-too-common assumptions manufacturers and marketers make about the colors and themes girls want in their toys. But Allen mounts a pretty inept defense.

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